In physical spaces, color can unconsciously affect our mood. But does color affect mood in user interfaces? Not exactly.
If you are about to paint a room, you’ll find no shortage of web articles ready to give you advice about what colors to choose. Some of these articles will assert that color can affect our mood, and suggest how you might select a paint color to produce a particular emotional effect you want your room to have.
Some of this advice regarding color-mood effects is anecdotal or based on assumption, but some of it actually has some basis in science.
There is good reason to believe that the colors on the walls around us can affect our mood somewhat. But should we seriously consider this when picking paint colors, or ignore it?
And what about user interfaces? Does color affect mood there?
Mood effects vs. other effects
First, some clarification.
While some web resources combine multiple kinds of color effects under a single umbrella of “color psychology”, in this article I’m intentionally isolating mood effects from other potential effects.
So when I’m talking about the mood effects of color in this article, I’m referring to the idea that certain colors tend to have direct unconscious effects on a person’s general emotional state.
For example: the idea (however true or untrue) that orange walls tend to cause people to become agitated, regardless of whether those individuals happen to prefer the color orange or not.
What I’m not referring to:
- Colors’ various meanings and inferences, which can vary based on culture, industry, context, etc.
- Color preferences
- Color’s influence on aesthetics
- Color’s other psychological effects, such as impact on task performance
Does color affect mood in the physical world?
1. The effects of color on mood are often overstated
Many psychologists are skeptical of the extent to which color actually affects us, compared to common claims. The reliability and amount of mood change caused by color are probably much lower than your average web article implies. There is also reason to believe that the effects are rather temporary.
2. The effects of color on mood aren’t well understood
Plenty of research shows that color can affect our mood, but a lot more research is still needed.
As professor of psychology Andrew J. Elliot wrote in 2015:
The focus of theoretical work in this area is either extremely specific or extremely general. […] What is needed are mid-level theoretical frameworks that comprehensively, yet precisely explain and predict links between color and psychological functioning in specific contexts.
Color psychology is complex, and clearly not as simple assigning colors to emotional reactions for all humans. For example, some color effects are tied to or affected by culture (e.g. life-long associations regarding color), and some color effects are highly dependent on context. But we don’t have nearly enough research to predict how these interacting factors come into play in any particular application of color.
Does color affect mood in user interfaces?
When it comes to software user interfaces, the color-mood effect isn’t really a thing.
Some web articles, infographics, and resources appear to be based on the mistaken assumption that the color-mood effects of physical spaces can also be applied to media.
However, for a color to affect your mood, you need to be surrounded by that color. Smaller patches of color, such as on mobile phones or computer screens, aren’t going to have that effect.
Color on our screens can have interesting and unexpected psychological and physiological effects on users. For example, particular colored backgrounds can have an effect on the performance of certain kinds of tasks, and the bright bluish light that pours out of our phones and tablets can negatively impact our sleep patterns.
But our understanding of how color affects mood in physical spaces—as limited as that understanding is—does not translate to user interfaces.
When it comes to selecting a paint color for a room, feel free to pay some attention to the color-mood charts. Or don’t. In most cases, color preferences will matter far more than pure mood effects would. If the room ends up looking pleasing and appropriate, you probably did fine.
But when it comes to picking colors for your user interface (or logo, or what have you), just ignore the color-mood effect all together.
But don’t worry, there’s still plenty to worry about.
With consideration of color-mood effects out of the way, you’re still left with all of the other important aspects of color in your UI. This includes aesthetics, setting user expectations, lending meaning to data and UI elements per culture and context, accounting for color vision deficiency in your users, etc.
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